How the left went wrong

In early 2003, the largest co-ordinated protests in history took place against the Iraq war. This, a

No one who looked at the liberal left from the outside could pretend that it provided anything other than token opposition to the "insurgents" from the Ba'ath Party and al-Qaeda. The British Liberal Democrats, the Continental social-democratic parties, the African National Congress and virtually every leftish newspaper and journal on the planet were unable to accept that the struggles of Arabs and Kurds had anything to do with them. Mainstream Muslim organisations were as indifferent to the murder of Muslims by Muslims in Iraq as they were to those in Darfur. For most world opinion, Tony Blair's hopes of "giving people oppressed, almost enslaved, the prospect of democracy and liberty" counted for nothing. The worst of the lot were the organisers of the UK anti-war demonstrations who turned out to be not so much against war, but on the wrong side.

Their leader, George Galloway, was a bombastic Scottish Labour MP who combined blood-curdling rhetoric with a whining sentimentality, like many a thug before him. In the Nineties, his political career appeared to be dead. Contrary to popular prejudice, successful politicians don't always love the sound of their own voice. The ones who get on learn to hold their tongue and speak for a purpose. Galloway was too fond of grandstanding to make it in the best of times for the left. When new Labour took charge, many Scottish bruisers from the old left found preferment under Blair, who, like all prime ministers, needed his enforcers. But Galloway missed the boat, and perhaps never wanted to board it. He seemed an irrelevant backbencher who could hope only for the occasional appearance on talk radio, but he proved that a minor politician from democratic Britain could build an alternative career in Arab dictatorships. Their state-controlled media quoted approved foreigners at length, giving Galloway the attention he could not get at home. The unending tyranny of totalitarian Iraq and the ephemeral glitz of Celebrity Big Brother seem as far apart as it is possible to be. But the anti-war movement should not have been surprised that Galloway ended up as an exhibit on a TV freak show. The celebrity and the totalitarian share a desire to have their face in every news paper and on every television screen. Both are what the playwright Heathcote Williams called "psychic imperialists", who want to col onise the minds of millions.

In 1994, long before he crawled around the Big Brother house, Galloway made his first steps towards stardom when Iraqi TV showed him bending the knee before Saddam Hussein. He gave the most emphatic demonstration of the switch on the left when he flew to Baghdad in the aftermath of the first war against Saddam and declared: "I thought the president would appreciate to know that even today, three years after the war, I still meet families who are calling their newborn sons Saddam . . . Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem." If you listened to what Galloway said, you noticed a difference from what had gone before. With the brief exception of the two years of the Hitler-Stalin pact, 20th-century fellow-travellers had to choose between communism and fascism, but in the 21st century you could refuse to be "judgemental" about any system as long as it was anti-democratic.

Galloway saluted the fascistic perpetrator of racial extermination campaigns, but he was just as keen on communism. He lamented "the disappearance of the Soviet Union", and said it was "the biggest catastrophe of my life". When asked about his admiration for Fidel Castro, the dictator of Cuba, he said, "I don't believe that Fidel Castro is a dictator." When Saddam was gone, Galloway went to Ba'athist Syria, even though it was the sworn enemy of Ba'athist Iraq, and applauded it as "the last castle of the Arab dignity and the Arab rights". Saddam had launched an unprovoked war against Iran, but when Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist proxy in Lebanon, began a war with Israel, a finger-jabbing Galloway bellowed to a rally in London, "Hezbollah has never been a terrorist organisation. I am here to glorify the Lebanese resistance." Stalinism, Castroism, Islamism, Ba'athism, the old distinctions no longer held. Any ism would do as an alternative to democracy.

Such was the leader of the Stop the War Coalition, a man offered columns by the Guardian, the parish magazine of the "liberal" English middle class, and buttered up with oily profiles in the New York Times, the parish magazine of the "liberal" American middle class. A respectable movement of the right or the left would have refused to have anything to do with him, but the fever George W Bush provoked and the waning power of liberal principles meant that not one heckler raised a voice in protest when he addressed the London marchers who were so eager to chant "Not in my name".

A theme of this book is that ideas on the fringe are worth examining. Not only do the thoughts of apparently inconsequential figures - Michel Aflaq, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek, Sayyid Qutb - take off, but the extreme parties magnify trends in wider society. The Socialist Workers Party, Galloway's backer and the real force behind the Stop the War Coalition, distinguished itself by taking the opportunism and control-freakery of conventional politics and pushing them further than any democratic party would dare, when it ordered its pliant members into an alliance with the Islamic right in which not one of the old taboos held.

Take fascist conspiracy theory. Globalise Resistance, an anti-capitalist group dominated by the SWP, first proposed a global day of protest against the war at the "Cairo Conference" of anti-war activists. The delegates sounded as if tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany had inspired them when they declared that the 2003 war against Iraq was the result of a "Zionist plan, which targets the establishment of the greater State of Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates".

Rich script

Making friends with your enemy's enemy is a familiar tactic, but it is not as uncomplicated as it seems. More often than not, you have to betray your old friends when you conclude your pact. The organisers of the anti-war demonstrations and their friends treated Iraqi left-wingers like criminals because they refused to take up arms against the Americans as the script of the rich world's left said they must.

Instead of supporting the far right, the uppity natives said they wanted to escape from al-Qaeda and the Ba'ath and to participate in free elections. Iraqi trade unionists in particular were met with the most implacable hatred. At the 2004 European Social Forum speaker after speaker supported the "resistance". No one booed when one said that those who questioned the motives of the suicide bombers who were murdering daily (mainly Muslim) civilians were guilty of "anti-Islamic racism". They dismissed the leaders of the Iraqi left as "quislings", even when they were men such as Hadi Saleh. The left would once have hailed him a hero for risking his life for the welfare of humanity. Saleh was a printer and trade union organiser whom the Ba'athists arrested as soon as they came to power in 1968. He sat on death row for five years. They let him go, and he fled to Sweden with his wife. Like many in the Iraqi Communist Party, he lost his faith in Moscow after it cut deals with Saddam and started a long journey towards constitutional politics. He had to live with a constant fear of assassination. Saleh opposed the war of 2003, but returned home after it was over. From next to nothing he and his comrades built a mass movement in the face of the indifference or hostility of the Americans, who were so lost in conservative dogma they didn't grasp that free societies and free trade unions go together. They came for him, of course. The professional nature of the torture wounds on his body suggested that "they" were Ba'athist secret policemen rather than Bin Ladenists. When he was dead, they took his union records to give them the names of more people to kill.

I've never felt as ashamed of my trade of liberal journalism as I did at the time of his murder. The BBC boasts that it questions without fear or favour. But when you hire upper-middle-class arts graduates, pay them well and allow them to work, eat and sleep together in west London, there's bound to be a "Collective Group Think". In Iraq's case, it did not come out in the hard questions they asked the other side, but in the soft questions they asked their own side. For years, the BBC's attack-dog presenters couldn't manage to give one opponent of the war a tough interview. Not even Galloway. My colleagues were rich men and women by British standards, let alone world standards. They kept silent so they could maintain the illusion that the family of the "left" was flawless. No one would have tortured them if they had spoken out. No one would have beaten their genitals, broken their bones, strangled them with an electric flex and then stolen their address book so that they could do the same to their friends. The worst they would have got were contemptuous looks at dinner parties, badges of honour at the time.

When I asked my colleagues why the fact that an anti-war movement being led by apologists for Saddam was not a story, when a Countryside Alliance led by neo-Nazis would have been, they said, "Well, the people who went on their demonstrations didn't agree with Galloway and the SWP. They followed Robin Cook, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder and the Liberal Democrats." This was true up to a point. "And anyway," they continued, "it didn't matter" - an answer which showed how little they understood the world around them.

The convergence of far-left and far-right ideas is not the only reason for taking a good look at the organisers of the anti-war marches. Because they said they were on the left, they had to face an argument that was to confront men and women with status, in the BBC, liberal media, NGOs, Liberal Democrats and the centre-left governments of Europe, South America and South Africa. All right, it ran, you say the war against Iraq was illegal, and you wish it had never happened; you're appalled by the casualties and sickened by Bush. That's fine, and you have a point, but now that far-right psychopaths are ravaging the country, are you going to stand up for your social-democratic principles and support the victims or does anything go for you, too?

"What's Left? How liberals lost their way" is published by Fourth Estate (£12.99). Next week, John Kampfner reviews Nick Cohen's book

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times